20th Sunday A: Moments of Grace

Moments of Grace

Many people are puzzled as to how Jesus responds to the Canaanite woman who begs Him to release her little girl from demonic possession. We are struck by how out of character it is for Jesus not to respond to a cry for help.

As the woman continues Jesus replies that His mission is only to the children of Israel. After more pleading Jesus says, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” We are stunned by His words. But the woman doesn’t give up. She comes back with, “Even the dogs get the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” We feel like cheering her on! Jesus then replies, “O woman, great is your faith!”

What’s going on here?  Right before this event, the disciples were caught in a storm and called to Jesus for help. Jesus called Peter to walk on the water toward Him, but his faith wavered and began to sink. Jesus saved Peter and chided him and the other disciples with “O, you of little faith.” The apostles had been witnesses to dozens of Jesus’ healings and miracles, yet their faith remains weak.

By contrast, the faith of this Canaanite woman never waivers and surpasses the faith of His Apostles, at least at this time in their lives.  Some of the more dramatic acts of faith in the Gospels are made by the pagans, such as the centurion who said, “I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed”; the woman of today’s Gospel; and the Roman soldier at the cross who makes the dramatic statement, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”.

Bartolo was born in 1841 to Bartolomeo and Antonina Longo at the town of Latiano, in southern Italy. Bartolomeo was a physician and he and Antonina were devout Catholics who prayed a family rosary daily. As a boy, Bartolo was exposed to the best of culture, and was especially inclined toward music and writing. Antonina was devoted to personally visiting and helping the poor, and taught her son to do the same. When his father died in 1851, Bartolo gradually began to drift from his faith. He studied law from a private tutor, followed by formal training at the University of Naples. This university was a hub for anti-Catholic pagan activity, and Bartolo became prey to this movement. He abandoned his faith and was known to mock Christianity in public places. He engaged in such dangerous occult practices as seances, wizardry, and sooth-saying; as well as the orgies necessary for inclusion in his “spiritualist” way of life. Eventually, he was “ordained” a satanic priest. Sadly, he was successful in drawing numerous Catholic Christians away from their faith.

As a result of his participation in neo-pagan practices, Bartolo began to suffer, physically and mentally. He became plagued by nervousness, severe depression, paranoia, and confusion. He was tormented by frightening diabolical visions and his health continued to spiral downward until he had a nervous breakdown. In desperation, he heard the voice of his deceased father begging him repeatedly to return to God. Bartolo turned to Professor Vincenzo Pepe, a longtime friend, for help. Pepe convinced him to turn away from Satan, and a long road of conversion had begun. Bartolo was then introduced to a learned Dominican priest, who mentored and tutored him in the faith, especially utilizing the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. After a time of study and prayer, Bartolo returned to the Sacraments. He even boldly appeared at a séance and a number of other occult gatherings, declaring his new-found faith and renouncing his former practices.

One day as he was visiting Pompeii, Bartolo was dismayed at the atmosphere of depravity, poverty, and religious ignorance. He had a mystical experience, where he dropped to his knees and promised the Virgin Mary that he would not leave the area until he had successfully spread devotion to the rosary. He ceased his pursuit of a legal profession and in 1871 became a Third Order (lay) Dominican, taking the name Brother Rosario. 

He married a wonderful Catholic woman and together they built the Basilica of our Lady of the Rosary in Pompeii as well as an orphanage and trade school for youth.  In 1980 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

Faith is sometimes found in the least-expected places. God’s grace can touch the hearts of some people we might tend to dismiss.  There are several examples of people in the Bible who sinned greatly, but repented and went on to do great things for God. There are also Saints who were murderers, thieves, prostitutes and even Satanists before their conversion to the Lord. Their stories prove to us that God’s grace is never far away.

Fr. Tom